I first discovered Usagi Yojimbo through my love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I knew him first through the action figure. I don’t know if I ever saw the episodes he was in from the original cartoon, but I always had a fondness for the character. In 1998 my family went on a cross country roadtrip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. My brother and I had recently gone to Toy Fair (or a toy convention unaffiliated with Toy Fair) somewhere around the Philly area. He had picked up a couple of issues of Toy Fare Magazine.
These magazines ruled. Filled with retrospectives of classic figures and previews of cool new figures. It was peppered with irreverent humor and the very funny (at the time, for a 10 year old) Twisted Mego Theater.
I poured over those magazines for years until they fell apart. I drooled over the upcoming Toy Biz Classic Avengers and Classic X-Men 5 packs. But my real object of desire was an Usagi Yojimbo, true to the character’s comic book roots (which, to be clear, I had never read). I don’t know why I thought he was so cool. I liked that he came with a lizard.
But I really grew to love the character and his extended world through his appearances in the 2003 TMNT cartoon, where he had several prominent appearances that included extended adventures with his supporting characters and his feudal Japan setting. As a recovering anime fan, this was very appealing to me.
I first started reading Stan Sakai’s actual Usagi Yojimbo comics in early 2008 as my year of working retail following my record-setting one night enrolled in art school was coming to a close.
Usagi immediately drew me in through the strength of Sakai’s confident simplicity. My first Usagi comic was Travels With Jotaro, a volume where the wandering samurai connects with his illegitimate son for the first time. Jotaro does not know Usagi is his true father, and the series balances a somber mix of humor, action, and quiet sadness.
I found my way to the archives and devoured dozens of issues from Usagi’s first publication. Usagi joined me in my first months at college, where I would leave my awful roommates and sit in the common lounge in the residence hall and read. It managed to be a pretty decent icebreaker.
But life eventually took over and after getting through Grasscutter, my reading petered out.
It feels silly, nearly 40 years into its publication history, to even attempt to say anything about the series that hasn’t been said. But, thinking about my recent foray into out-of-context comics, it struck me that Usagi Yojimbo is perhaps the ultimate accessible series. My first time reading the series was Volume 18–well over 20 years after the series started. But everything you need to know is there on the page.
We understand Usagi and his quest for a quiet life in any given issue. His measured and taciturn approach to the high stakes he wanders into makes him a welcoming guide into Sakai’s lovingly researched Japan. The rabbit ronin’s distaste for violence contrasts with his deadly mastery of the sword and quickness with a blade. Sakai’s action is minimalist and never showy, with simple motion lines and clanging metal against metal. There’s no fancy sword tricks (except when an arrogant fool tries to intimidate our hero, to contrast Usagi’s quiet confidence).
Despite the funny animal cast, Usagi deals with the weight and human cost of violence with more compassion and empathy than any other I’ve read. One of the saddest sequences in all of comics history comes in an early issue titled “The Duel,”, where a gambling swordsman pushes his luck to best Usagi in a fight to the death and leaves his wife and young child, standing far on the outskirts of town, abandoned, waiting for a return which would never come.
I’ve been making my way through the archives again in recent months, savoring Sakai’s masterful approach. The fights are fun and the feudal intrigue makes for engaging stories but what truly shines through is how Sakai brings his world to life. We are invited to feel the breeze of the open plains, the cold of the slapping rain, and the vast openness of the dangerous, bandit-filled roads. Usagi is often dwarfed by the world around him, one small detail among the sprawling landscapes. He is our window into this living, breathing history of a time long past.
I thought I might catch up with Miyamoto Usagi in this latest issue, IDW’s #31, and how Sakai’s approach to his stories might have changed. It’s a particularly interesting time to be an Usagi fan – With a new Netflix series loosely based on Sakai’s characters (with his involvement), a new Usagi imprint coming at Dark Horse, and even a new action figure (yes, I finally got my Usagi figure!).
There’s a shaky and lighter quality to Sakai’s line in this new issue, a bit of a softer touch of the brush than his older work. It is likely from age but it gives the story a rough edge that emphasizes Usagi’s tentative and rough collaboration with his ninja companion, Chizu.
Usagi also seems angrier here, a bit more short-tempered and jaded and quick to sever that uneasy alliance. The years of adventure seem to be catching up with him.
As has always been the case, Sakai does an excellent job catching the reader up without laying out expository dialogue. The dialogue, character dynamics, and actions illustrate the characters and their motivations, as well as the stakes of their mission. While much of the issue are scenes of travel, it is peppered with battles with the komori Bat ninja, who are even creepier and more grotesque than when they were first introduced. The ending also provides a compelling conclusion to the ronin’s current journey with an emotional fallout that lands even without seeing all of these characters’ travels together.
The new character, Usagi’s cousin Yukichi, doesn’t add much to the proceedings other than an additional character for dialogue to bounce off of. He is not the focus here, so I will pass no judgment on how well he works without seeing what he has brought to the story before now. The major conflict is between Usagi and Chizu.
The biggest difference is, obviously, the fact that this latest IDW volume of Usagi Yojimbo is in full color, a departure from the series’ historically black and white roots. Sakai has ocassionally dabbled in color but these are the first regular series issues to be colored upon their original publication. The colors here don’t do the story any favors or add any particular depth or dimension to the art. The overly smoothed digital sheen of the work is a bit too rendered to evoke cartoon cel shading but also fails to add any texture to the characters. The end result is a bit of a blurry mess that at times looks amateurish. I don’t find it egregiously distracting but it certainly doesn’t add anything. Particularly given that this issue takes place in the snow, the landscape that Sakai would previously have rendered with minimalist use of inks is instead replaced with a hazy blue that busies up the background.
The charm that defines Usagi Yojimbo remains here in spades. Clearly Sakai has more to explore and the subtle growth in the character’s worldview is notable after so much time between where I left off and picked up here. But most importantly–Sakai keeps the focus on the world and the Japanese countryside, a dangerous and unknowable world the characters must pass through. There is nothing extraneous or indulgent. We are swept along the wilderness along with the cast. That’s what really makes Usagi Yojimbo such a consistently engaging read. The power it has to transport and sweep us up in its grand adventure. That magic remains, all these years later.